Note: Our best Linux distro for small businesses feature has been fully updated. This article was first published in July 2016.
Running a small business is no easy task. The last thing you need is extra complexity in your IT infrastructure – so why turn to Linux? Well, it could (if you're lucky) actually turn out to be a less complex choice for many tasks, depending on the distribution you select. And, critically, Linux is free; at least if you don't figure in support costs. That's an overhead ticked off the list.
So what's the best choice for your small business? We've approached this selection with a few criteria in mind. Stability is first and foremost, because if you're putting a distro to work, uptime is critical, and solid support provision comes a close second.
We've also considered practical capabilities, which is why you'll find a couple of non-desktop distributions on our list: Linux is perhaps better suited to managing your behind-the-scenes hardware than it is being put in front of users who may be unfamiliar with Gnome or KDE.
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Built on the solid foundation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) – and, indeed, officially funded by Red Hat as of 2014 – CentOS is undoubtedly a distro with strong credentials. Its default Gnome desktop is pleasant and reasonably familiar to most computer users, the RPM package management system is widely supported, and it's equally at home on workstations and servers.
CentOS harnesses the open source components of its parent OS, which actually make up the majority of RHEL – only Red Hat's trademarks and a few proprietary components are omitted. Thanks to this unique partnership, updates tend to flow to CentOS only a day or two after they hit its parent – this is enterprise-class Linux that anyone can use.
CentOS is now one of the world's most popular server distros, and is perfect if you want to build serious hardware appliances without paying for a Red Hat subscription. The downside of going free is support. While the CentOS community is brilliant, professional support is the key reason for using RHEL – but with server prices starting at $349 (around £270, AU$465) per year, it could be prohibitively expensive for small business use.
ClearOS and CentOS are pretty close cousins. Both run many of the same packages inherited from RHEL, and can benefit from the swift Red Hat release cycle. But while CentOS is a functional desktop OS, ClearOS isn't. Instead, it's intended primarily as a server platform administered entirely from a web interface. Once it's installed, you won't need a keyboard, mouse, or even a monitor connected to its home machine.
Because of its tight focus, ClearOS is actually easier to use than most server operating systems. That web interface makes installing this operating system's various components a breeze, so you'll be able to quickly get your business protected with a firewall, manage an email server, install a file server or more – all safe in the knowledge that each of these components will (most likely) work perfectly together.
There's support available if you're somehow overwhelmed – it's not the cheapest, but it's there – and a specific paid-for Business edition which includes only highly-tested software packages and patches. You might also be interested in ClearVM, the team's virtualisation solution; the free version allows you to finely manage the precise performance of two virtual machines and eight CPU cores.
While CentOS is an open source OS based on a paid-for release, this goes the other way – community-developed OpenSUSE provides the basis of commercially-supported SUSE Linux Enterprise. SUSE actually borrows a lot from Red Hat, including its RPM package management system, but don't make the mistake of thinking it's a clone.
OpenSUSE is one of the few distros to default to the graphically-heavy KDE window manager, though it comes with Mate, LXDE and others, so it'll be comfortable on whatever hardware you’re using. In fact, if you're looking to run small web appliances, the latest version heralds the release of a 64-bit Raspberry Pi edition, and it also includes 17% more packages than 42.1 – a huge upgrade.
Each Leap release receives critical updates for 18 months, after which you'll need to upgrade to stay on top of the latest developments – bear this in mind if security, stability and low IT costs are a concern. Try the Tumbleweed release if you're looking for rolling updates.
If you're running a small business, the security of your network should be as important a concern as the behaviour of your employees. IPFire ticks both these boxes at once. It's an all-in-one Linux appliance: install it on a machine which sits between your internet connection and your network switch and it'll do everything from managing IP addresses to protecting you with a firewall, and controlling what sites your workers are allowed to visit and when.
It does require a certain level of knowledge to get IPFire installed, and its unique nature – it's constructed from scratch, not forked from any specific version of Linux – means it won't be quite as easy to extend as other distros may be. Thankfully there are regular 'Core' updates, which incrementally keep IPFire up to date with the latest security and app updates.
Also bear in mind that this will require at least a machine with two network connections, and it's all controlled from a web interface – this is definitely not a desktop OS. There's paid support available if it all goes pear-shaped.
It's the most popular Linux flavour out there, but Ubuntu’s reputation might lead you to think that it’s best suited to home users. Not so – Ubuntu's stability and compatibility are very solid, there's a free-to-use Ubuntu Server version to handle your backend tasks, and its use of Debian packages and the Apt package management system means you'll be able to get the software you need quickly and easily.
Perhaps Ubuntu's strongest feature is its support. The vast user base means there's a raft of technical documentation available, and its generous community has answered just about every question you might have. This is precisely the reason we've suggested version 16.04 over the more recent 16.10 release – the April releases are tagged LTS for 'long term support', and will be maintained and cared for beyond the October ones. With 16.04, you're covered until 2021, which could be a great advantage if downtime costs you money.
For those times when you need a little more help, the Ubuntu Advantage program offers a reasonably priced support program for desktops and servers.
Manjaro is built on top of Arch Linux, traditionally one of the more complex and obtuse Linux distros out there. This OS does away with that complexity, while sharing Arch's streamlined, fast environment, its fearlessness regarding access to the very latest software, and its rolling release schedule.
Basically this means you should never have to install a later version of the software – you'll get the updates as they're released, and your Manjaro machines will upgrade over time rather than being taken out of service.
Manjaro's default desktop, a spin of Xfce, is very Windows-like, so your users will likely feel comfortable immediately, and its other improvements over Arch – a better installer, improved hardware detection, repositories full of stable software – make it a solid choice for end-user systems. That's its strong point, mind you. With some work you could probably build a server from Manjaro's Minimal Net edition, a stripped-down version you can construct from the ground-up, but other distros handle that aspect a lot better.
You could also find a prebuilt version amongst Manjaro's community editions which may suit your needs perfectly; check them out here.
We're entering the realm of more difficult distros here, and we're doing it without the safety net of a dedicated paid support structure, but give Slackware a chance if you're looking to build bespoke Linux systems.
It's the oldest consistently maintained Linux distro, having first emerged in 1993, and as such it doesn't make any assumptions about the way you're going to use it, giving you more control than most other distros.
You're going to need control, though: its package manager doesn't resolve software dependencies, there's no fixed release schedule (Slackware tends to come out when a new stable version is ready, and the most recent release gap was around three years), and there are no graphical configuration tools.
But knuckle down, edit a bunch of plain text files, and you'll be able to create exactly the package you need for your business, all on top of a lightweight and bloat-free distro.